Decreed by president Kais Saied on September 15, the new electoral law had a ripple effect on Tunisia’s feminist activists. This new legislation aims to organize political participation as the country approaches the next elections set for December 2022.
On October 7, nine associations joined forces to protest the new law: the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), Aswat Nissa, Beity, Amal for Families and Children, the Tawhida Ben Cheikh Group, Joussour for Citizenship (Kef), Calam, the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTRD), and the association Women and Civic Duty. Stationed outside the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE), demonstrators denounced the law’s exclusion of women from the political scene. Their slogans: « We are full-fledged citizens; we refuse to be simple place holders »; « We will not accept legislation that excludes us or procedures that push us to the sidelines »; « We are not complementary counterparts, we will not be used as decoration for this masquerade ».
« Catastrophic at every level »
The movement called upon all Tunisians to mobilize against the electoral law. « Unfortunately, citizens don’t seem to be aware of the danger. If we speak out against the president’s actions, we are labeled as being pro-Ennahdha », says Sonia Ben Miled, communications officer at Aswat Nissa. Ben Miled was part of a roundtable at the Delegation of the European Union (October 7), held by the Embassy of Sweden and the organisation Kvinna till Kvinna to discuss feminist associations’ recommendations for integrating a gendered perspective in the fourth edition of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
Under the new electoral law, Tunisians must elect their deputies individually. With the abrogation of the voting system for electoral lists presented by political parties, political parties’ role will be weakened, as will women’s representation in elected assemblies. This is according to president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) Naila Zoghlami. « The law is catastrophic at every level », Zoghlami indicated during an interview with Nawaat.
The constitution promulgated on August 17, 2022 enshrines equality between men and women. Article 51 lays out the government’s commitment to preserving and reinforcing women’s gains. The government must also guarantee men and women equal opportunities in all sectors. One paragraph under the article explicitly refers to women’s political participation: « The government will work to ensure parity between women and men in elected assemblies ».
However, feminist activists argue that the president’s electoral law undermines just as many guarantees:
This law crushes all of the Constitution’s promises with regards to gender equality. It excludes women from the political sphere,
Salwa Hamrouni, president of the Tunisian Association of Constitutional Law, is of the same view (watch her interview in Arabic).
Obstacles to political participation
According to the mechanism of endorsements laid out in the new electoral law, a candidate must gather the endorsement of 400 voters, of whom 50% are to be women and 25% youth under the age of 35. This instrument thus ensures equality between men and women—unless it is a woman who decides to present her candidacy.
« Women will face more difficulties in gaining endorsements », Salwa Hamrouni explains to Nawaat. What is more, this system reinforces « women’s vulnerability, since the latter will tend to endorse, who have more opportunities than do women in terms of gaining access to power », Naila Zoghlami predicts.
In more general terms, the uninominal voting system does not favor women’s political participation. The ATFD recommends a twinning mechanism for candidacies—a parity-based binomial system in which joint candidacies are formed of one man and one woman. Both Zoghlami and Hamrouni raise the issue of women’s access to campaign financing. The new law prohibits the public financing of electoral campaigns. Candidates must therefore finance their own campaigns or else secure private funding. « Women are not as financially sound as men », Zoghlami points out.
Lack of financial and logistical means is also an issue in light of the electoral law’s organization of voting districts. « This organization groups together certain delegations that are far apart. Due to the considerable cost of travel and logistical planning involved, however, many women will be unable to cover such distances », Zoghlami notes. The ATFD president adds:
« We live in a country that is marked by tribalism, clanism, regionalism and a patriarchal mentality that marginalize women in the public sphere, to men’s advantage. Without legal mechanisms that encourage women’s political participation, the latter will remain on the sidelines ».
According to Zoghlami, the president’s actions stem from the idea that women should no longer be treated as minors requiring some form of guardianship, that merit alone should be enough to gain them access to power. « This logic flouts the reality that Tunisia is rife with political corruption and nepotism. We saw, for example, how the men elected to serve on previous [parliamentary] assemblies were devoid of competence. It was only scheming and economic power that enabled them to gain seats », she comments. In a number of countries, Zoghlami tells us, women in the political arena often prove to be less implicated in corruption than their male counterparts.
Until the country witnesses a change in attitudes allowing for the possibility of a real meritocracy, Zoghlami argues, the electoral law must incorporate the principle of positive discrimination in favor of women and youth.
For Ramy Khouili of the association Beity, equality must be achieved within the context of a democratic state. During the roundtable with EU representatives, Khouilli voiced the caveat that « parity must not serve to camouflage a public policy that undermines women’s rights ».
Sara Medini of Aswat Nissa shares the same concern. She cites the example of prime minister Najla Bouden: « She doesn’t have any real power. She is nothing but a pretty window display for the government ».
Feminist activists intend to intensify their pressure on the government in hopes that the new electoral law will be changed. Next, they are planning a sit-in within the ISIE itself. « We will not tolerate any steps back with regards to equality. Before, we fought for the establishment of public budgets that are sensitive to the gender equity approach, and devoted to horizontal parity in parliament. Now, we’re moving backwards », Zoghlami says woefully. She warns against an elected assembly dominated by men. « We must also compose with a president whose actions are based on a backwards approach to equality, so we can expect to see legislation that restricts women’s rights », she concludes.